Wednesday, May 30, 2018


This morning I was out in the front yard, once again weeding the bed along the sidewalk.

In the distance, I could hear a lawnmower running--the neighbor's yard-service guy was out early, too, to get his work done before the heat and humidity become unbearable. As I pulled mock strawberry and thistle, I vaguely registered the sound of the lawnmower stopping, being loaded into a truck, and an engine turning over.

The lawn guy's truck pulled to at stop at the intersection where our house sits. I had my back to the street, but I heard a voice behind me. I turned around to see the lawn guy leaning toward the open passenger-side window of his truck.

"Thank you for the peonies," he said, referring to the two gigantic bushes in the bed along the other side of the house, whose branches are so heavily loaded with blooms right now that they have toppled to the ground. "I love their fragrance."

It took a moment to understand what he was saying. "Oh, me, too...please cut some and take them--there are so many." 

He waved that idea away, just saying, "Thank you. I grew up with them," then drove off. 

Such a simple and unnecessary exchange. But it rocked me to my core. 

It's these unexpected kindnesses in the last couple of weeks that have both soothed me and utterly destroyed me: a letter from a friend of my parents', containing such detailed and loving memories of them both. A neighbor who stopped by to drop off some cookies. Tom went to the door, so I didn't see her, but as she walked away, I could hear her three-year-old daughter saying "Bye bye, wall. Bye bye, flowers." A phone call with a former colleague of my mom's that ranged across topics from the inconstancy of cats to transgender rights to purchasing Turkish rugs, with thoughts about mom and her last days scattered in there, lightly, when they came up. I understood why she was one of the few people mom told about her diagnosis. 

All of it feels like not enough and too much simultaneously. What did I ever do to deserve such kindness, even from strangers? I certainly have not been as kind or thoughtful when others I know have suffered losses, much less in daily practice. And hearing so many stories about my mom's generosity makes me feel especially unworthy. 

Before anyone leaps in here to demur, let me stress that that's not the purpose of this post. Even in the midst of the exquisite tenderness of the moment, I recognize that my mother was not a saint and neither am I, nor do I wish to be. It's taken me the better part of the last few decades to grow the steely backbone that I also know my mother had. 

I simply want to acknowledge the many examples of grace I've experienced recently. 

I don't mean "grace" in the religious sense--but something like that, in the sense of its being "unmerited favor, love, or assistance." No need to get God or the divine involved. Humans can and do grant these gifts to each other, knowingly or unknowingly...and in these harsh times, we should probably strive to do it more often. 

Ever since mom died I've had a quote from a Robert Frost poem in my head. It comes from "Home Burial," one of his narrative poems about a couple that has lost a baby, their struggle to cope with the loss and with each other in the aftermath. The wife says that
The nearest friends can go
With anyone toward death, comes so far short
They might as well not even try to go at all.
In those lines, Frost perfectly captures the isolation of grief: the world keeps spinning, the sun comes up and goes down, and even those who are mourning alongside you are just that--alongside you, having their own separate and personal experience of it. 

I first read those lines when I was nineteen, in a 20th-century American poetry course, and they (obviously) struck me at the time, since I remember them all these years later. 

But I also realize, now, that Frost is suggesting that the wife is wrong to interpret the fact that friends' "minds turn...and make their way back to life and living people" as evidence that "the world's evil." Frost seems to be suggesting that part of grief is the feeling of betrayal the bereaved feel when they, too, have to bend back toward life and living. 

Fellow mourners, friends, colleagues, strangers in trucks: we're all on separate paths, but we can see each other and wave as those paths align, diverge, or intersect. 

When it comes to both grief and grace, time and religious belief are irrelevant. About a year after I took that poetry class, my dear friend Jay died of AIDS. At the time, a friend told me that she didn't know what to say to comfort me, because she knew I was agnostic. That same friend showed up at my mom's memorial service, even though we hadn't seen each other in over 20 years. It was an amazing kind of full-circle moment, to find that in the intervening years we'd both learned that comfort doesn't lie in platitudes about something intangible or theological. It lies in your real-world presence. 

After I joined Facebook a decade ago, I reconnected with another friend from college who I hadn't been in touch with since my freshman year. In an early exchange, she asked about Jay; she'd met him once on a weekend visit, but didn't know about his passing. 

When I told her that he'd died twenty-two years earlier, she wrote to offer me her condolences, saying that she knew that it was old news to me, but that to her, "the loss is fresh." That meant a lot to me, both in the moment and now--evidence that grief is cyclical, not linear. Her fresh loss brought me back to my own grief about Jay's death, though from a very different perspective and place. A wave from one of those parallel, or perhaps spiraling, paths. 

That friend has also provided grace to me in recent days, as she's blogged about her own process of mourning her husband's death in 2016. In fact, it's her daughter's name, Grace, that made me think about the way grace moves in our lives, and gave me the title for this post.

And it's reminder to me that it's never too soon, or too late, or too unwelcome, to offer condolences, grace, and our mere presence to each other. There's a reason why the colloquial expression is to "grace us with your presence." Because our presence is perhaps the truest kind of grace there is. 

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